Imagery of a Good Shepherd

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Renewed Heart Ministries is a nonprofit organization working for a world of love and justice.

We need your support to offer the kind of resources RHM provides.

Helping people find the intersection between their faith, compassion, and justice is work that continues to prove deeply needed.

Please consider making a donation to support Renewed Heart Ministries’ work, today.

You can donate online by clicking here.

Or you can make a donation by mail at:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

And to those of you out there who already are supporting this ministry, we want to say thank you.  We could not continue being a voice for change without you.

 


 

shepherd with sheep


Herb Montgomery | April 23, 2021


”This story that so many White Christians hold dear puts God on the side of these lost Black lives. And where we stand, whether in solidarity, neutrality, devil’s advocacy, indifference, or even opposition, reveals where we stand in relation to the God of the Jesus story. We are only with this God when we are with them.“


Our reading this week is from the gospel of John:

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me—just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.” (John 10:11-18)

Our passage’s focuses on the image of Jesus as a shepherd. This was a popular image of Jesus before Western Christianity became fixated on crucifixes. Rebecca Ann Parker and Rita Kashima Brock write in the prologue of their groundbreaking book Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire about how they saw early Christians use this imagery over and over:

“It took Jesus a thousand years to die. Images of his corpse did not appear in churches until the tenth century. Why not? This question set us off on a five-year pilgrimage that led to this book. Initially, we didn’t believe it could be true. Surely the art historians were wrong. The crucified Christ was too important to Western Christianity. How could it be that images of Jesus’s suffering and death were absent from early churches? We had to see for ourselves and consider what this might mean. In July 2002, we traveled to the Mediterranean in search of the dead body of Jesus. We began in Rome, descending from the blaze of the summer sun into the catacombs where underground tunnels and tombs are carved into soft tufa rock. The earliest surviving Christian art is painted onto the plaster-lined walls of tombs or carved onto marble sarcophagi as memorials to the interred. In the cool, dimly lit caverns, we saw a variety of biblical images. Many of them suggested rescue from danger. For example, Abraham and Isaac stood side by side in prayer with a ram bound next to them. Jonah, the recalcitrant prophet who was swallowed and coughed up by a sea monster, reclined peacefully beneath the shade of a vine. Daniel stood alive and well between two pacified lions. Other images suggested baptism and healing, such as the Samaritan woman drawing water from a well, John the Baptist dousing Jesus, depicted as a child, and Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Jesus also appeared as a shepherd carrying a lamb on his shoulders like Orpheus. We could not find a dead Jesus, not even one. It was just as the angel had said to the women looking for Jesus at his tomb, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” (Luke 24:5). “He is not here” (Mark 16:6). He most certainly was not.” (Italics added.)

Even today when you do a simple image search for Jesus, you’ll get ten or more images of a Jesus on a cross for every single image of a shepherd. Early Jesus followers had a very different focus: not the cross of Jesus but a living Jesus whose resurrection overcame and reversed everything his death accomplished. (See The Good News of Forceful Nonviolent Resurrection)

In this week’s passage from John, the focus isn’t the death of Jesus but Jesus taking life back up after his death. Even the purpose of Jesus’ laying down of life was that he might take it up again. The focus is not death, but taking hold of life—resurrection.

During this post-Easter season, remember that the cross interrupted Jesus’ life-giving ministry and teaching. The powerful, propertied, and privileged intended it to be permanent. The cross was meant to silence his calls for societal change, but the resurrection overturned that silencing. In the story, the resurrection doesn’t conquer death with more death. It answers death with death-reversing life; it answers death-dealing injustice with life-giving justice. I love this statement by Elizabeth Johnston that squarely defines act of Jesus’ crucifixion as a sin. And if it is a sin, then it is contrary to the will of God:

“Along with other forms of political and liberation theology, feminist theology repudiates an interpretation of the death of Jesus as required by God in repayment for sin . . . Jesus’ death was an act of violence brought about by threatened human men, as sin, and therefore against the will of a gracious God . . . What comes clear in the event, however, is not Jesus’ necessary passive victimization divinely decreed as a penalty for sin, but rather a dialectic of disaster and powerful human love through which the gracious God of Jesus enters into solidarity with all those who suffer . . . The victory of love, both human and divine, that spins new life out of this disaster is expressed in belief in the risen Christ.” (Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is, Kindle Location 4183)

The resurrection overturns the unjust state-sanctioned violence, and places Divine solidarity on the side of Jesus and all others who have unjustly suffered violence at the hands of the state. Today, that Divine solidarity includes Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Stephon Clark, Breonna Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson, Pamela Turner, Korryn Gaines, Yvette Smith, Miriam Carey, Shelley Frey, Darnisha Harris, Malissa Williams, Shantel Davis, Rekia Boyd, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Tarika Wilson, Kathryn Johnston, Kendra James, Tyisha Miller, George Floyd, Daunte Wright, and many, many more. This story that so many White Christians hold dear puts God on the side of these lost Black lives. And where we stand, whether in solidarity, neutrality, devil’s advocacy, indifference, or even opposition, reveals where we stand in relation to the God of the Jesus story. We are only with this God when we are with them.

The resurrection places the God of the Jesus story squarely on the side of justice and in the midst of the state-murdered community. The symbol of resurrection sends a message of justice overcoming injustice, love conquering hate, life overcoming death, and an unjust tomb not being able to hold justice back.

Today we need a new story of justice overcoming in the end. I don’t believe justice inevitably overcomes injustice on its own. If the moral arc of the universe is to bend toward justice, we must choose to bend it that way.

In the wake of the outcome of the trial of Derek Chauvin for George Floyd’s murder, I have to question if we will bend that arc systemically toward justice? As we daily witness Black lives cut down by police, we have a lot of work still to do.

If things are going to change, we are going to have to choose to change them.

Before we close, I will offer one word of caution concerning our reading this week. I see the image of the Shepherd in this passage held in contrast with the myth of redemptive suffering. The myth of the redemptive suffering teaches those who are abused and oppressed to be willing to suffer in order to change the heart or “redeem” their oppressors. As Brown and Parker rightly state, “The problem with this theology is that it asks people to suffer for the sake of helping evildoers see their evil ways. It puts concern for the evildoer ahead of concern for the victim of evil. It makes victims the servants of the evildoers’ salvation.” (Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker, For God So Loved The World? p. 16)

There is a difference between the self-sacrifice of disempowered people and the self-sacrifice of empowered people for those they love. John’s gospel is believed to be the latest written in our cannon. In John, Jesus has evolved in the story telling into an incarnate, cosmic figure, an empowered figure. The phrase, “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord,” indicates that John is placing Jesus in a position of empowerment not disempowerment.

In the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, the story is different. Jesus belongs to the community of the disempowered. His death is an act of sanctioned, state violence. His life is taken from him and then his death is powerfully overturned in the symbol of the resurrection. It would be irresponsible and dangerous to hold up the self-sacrifice of Jesus in John’s version of the Jesus story as an example to be followed by the community Jesus belongs to Matthew, Mark and Luke. In synoptic gospels, Jesus is a disempowered person. Jesus, unlike Paul, is not even a Roman citizen. As Howard Thurman so eloquently writes,

“Jesus was not a Roman citizen. He was not protected by the normal guarantees of citizenship—that quiet sense of security which comes from knowing that you belong and the general climate of confidence which it inspires. If a Roman soldier pushed Jesus into a ditch, he could not appeal to Caesar [as did Paul]; he would be just another Jew in the ditch. Standing always beyond the reach of citizen security, he was perpetually exposed to all the ‘arrows of outrageous fortune,’ and there was only a gratuitous refuge—if any—within the state.”(Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, p. 34)

In the synoptics, Jesus is a non-citizen, a marginalized person, who was in the end executed by the state for standing up to injustice. At minimum we need to perceive the difference between the synoptic’s Jesus and John’s Jesus. As a parent, I understand the imagery of John’s gospel. I have sacrificed for my children throughout their lives. I know what that kind of sacrifice feels like. And that kind of sacrifice is a very different from asking survivors, the abused, the oppressed to sacrifice themselves to change the hearts and minds of their abusers or the laws and policies unjust systems.

However you interpret the shepherd’s willingness to lay his life down for his sheep as contrasted with the commitment level of a “hired hand” here in John, what we don’t read in this passage is a sheep being willing to lay down their life to change the heart of an oppressive shepherd. The self-sacrifice of victims and survivors, people whose self is already being sacrificed and whose humanity is already being denied, only causes further damage. Justice in this context would be achieved by taking hold of one’s humanity, not sacrificing it.

And that leads me to my overall point this week.

Justice only wins in the end if we make it win.

We are in need of new stories of justice overcoming in the end in our context today. And I believe we can create those stories with our choices, here and now. When we choose to make justice ultimately win, not just in isolated occurrences but systemically, we are determining whether our ancient, cherished stories of justice overcoming ring true or are merely desperate, wishful fairytales.

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us.

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. How does focussing through the lens of a good shepherd rather than a substitutionary, crucified Jesus impact your own Jesus following and your engagement with public social injustice? Contrast and discuss with your group.

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

 


Social Repentance and Change

logo

Renewed Heart Ministries is a nonprofit organization working for a world of love and justice.

We need your support to offer the kind of resources RHM provides.

Helping people find the intersection between their faith, compassion, and justice is work that continues to prove deeply needed.

Please consider making a donation to support Renewed Heart Ministries’ work, today.

You can donate online by clicking here.

Or you can make a donation by mail at:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

And to those of you out there who already are supporting this ministry, we want to say thank you.  We could not continue being a voice for change without you.


Urban brick wall

Herb Montgomery | April 16, 2021


“American, Western Christianity, like American society overall, has a long history of focusing on individuals ‘ personal, private sins rather than the public, political, systemic sins of the larger society. If followers of Jesus are only focussed on private or personal, individual sins, then public social injustice that benefits the powerful goes unaddressed, untouched, and unchanged.”


This week’s reading is another post-Easter appearance story. This one is found in the gospel of Luke:

While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence. He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. (Luke 24:36-48)

The gospels’ post resurrection appearance stories follow a familiar pattern that meets the expectations of the communities each version was written for.

Some of the Greeks’ expectations appear in the Works of Plato:

“So that if any one’s body, while living, was large by nature, or food, or both, his corpse when he is dead is also larger; and if corpulent, his corpse is corpulent when he is dead; and so with respect to other things. And if again he took pains to make his hair grow long, his corpse also has long hair. Again, if any one has been well whipped, and while living had scars in his body, the vestiges of blows, either from scourges or other wounds, his dead body also is seen to retain the same marks. And if the limbs of anyone were broken or distorted while he lived, the same defects are distinct when he is dead. in a word, of whatever character any one has made his body to be while living, such will it distinctly be, entirely or for the most part for a certain time after he is dead.” (The Works of Plato: The Apology of Socrates, Crito, Phaedo, Gorgias, Protagoras, Phaedrus, Theaetetus, Euthyphron, and Lysis by George Burges, p. 229)

Plato goes on to say that this permanence in life and after death also applies to a person’s soul.

I don’t think we can make any conclusions about post-mortem realities from the passage in Luke, but these stories were certainly written to meet the expectations of the communities they were written for. They matched their expectations for what the bodies of any person who had died or been killed would be like.

The section of this week’s passage that I believe holds the most promise for our work today is the part that points to the resurrection of Jesus as offering repentance and forgiveness to the society in which Jesus was crucified.

To perceive what connects the resurrection, repentance, and forgiveness we need to understand the social nature of forgiveness.

For the Hebrew prophets, forgiveness was not merely for personal, private or individual sins, but also for the people’s political, public, social sins. Consider the social sins and the national nature of forgiveness in the following passages:

“ . . . the sins of those who dwell there will be forgiven.” (Isaiah 33:24)

“Go up and down the streets of Jerusalem, look around and consider, search through her squares. If you can find but one person who deals honestly and seeks the truth, I will forgive this city.” (Jeremiah 5:1)

“No longer will they teach their neighbors, or say to one another, ‘Know the LORD,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the LORD. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” (Jeremiah 31:34)

“In those days, at that time,” declares the LORD, “search will be made for Israel’s guilt, but there will be none, and for the sins of Judah, but none will be found, for I will forgive the remnant I spare.” (Jeremiah 50:20)

“Lord, listen! Lord, forgive! Lord, hear and act! For your sake, my God, do not delay, because your city and your people bear your Name.” (Daniel 9:19)

“Take words with you and return to the LORD. Say to him: Forgive all our sins and receive us graciously, that we may offer the fruit of our lips.” (Hosea 14:2)

“When they had stripped the land clean, I cried out, “Sovereign LORD, forgive! How can Jacob survive?” (Amos 7:2)

“Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy.” (Micah 7:18)

Again, the forgiveness written of in each of these passages is a social forgiveness for the sins of systemic injustice and oppression of the vulnerable and marginalized within the writer’s society.

The kind of repentance that leads to that kind of forgiveness, then, is a social rethinking of the current social course of injustice and implies a society, not just a few individuals, choosing to embrace a different path filled with a more just set of policies for the polity.

American, Western Christianity, like American society overall, has a long history of focusing on individuals ‘ personal, private sins rather than the public, political, systemic sins of the larger society. If followers of Jesus are only focussed on private or personal, individual sins, then public social injustice that benefits the powerful goes unaddressed, untouched, and unchanged.

Exchanging the public for the personal, or choosing to focus on the private instead of the political, has had a long history, especially among Christians, of being used by the powerful to protect their privilege.

This past Easter I read a powerful poem by the very talented poet, Kaitlin Shetler. The poem’s title is State. The very first line reads:

“my sins did not
nail him to
the cross
that was the state”

In the poem Shetler goes on to contrast confusing the “personal” for the “principalities,” and the “personal” with “state-sanctioned oppression.”

You can read the poem in its entirety, and I recommend doing so, on Kaitlin’s Facebook page for her poetry: https://www.facebook.com/kaitlinhardyshetler/posts/144155307119366

And now we can put all the pieces of this week’s passage together. The passage states,

“The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day so that repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations.”

Remember what we’ve been saying for the past few weeks. The cross interrupted Jesus’ life-giving ministry and teaching, and it was intended to be permanent. It was meant to silence Jesus’ calls for change, but the resurrection overturns it. The resurrection undoes and reverses everything accomplished by Jesus’ death. It overturns the state-sanctioned violence that places Divine solidarity on the side of the Roman state instead of on the side of the kind of society envisioned in the teachings of Jesus. The resurrection causes the vision of that kind of society to be born anew and to live on in the lives of Jesus’ followers. The resurrection doesn’t conquer death with more death, even just one more death, but by resurrecting life. It answers death with death-reversing life. It answers death-dealing injustice with life-giving justice. And it places the God of the Jesus story squarely on the side of justice and in the midst of the crucified community, the marginalized, the excluded, the vulnerable.

The resurrection unequivocally proclaims the solidarity of the God of the Jesus story with the marginalized in any given society. And in this way, I believe, that symbol of resurrection, of love conquering hate, of life overcoming death, of justice not being able to be held by an unjust tomb, has the potential to inspire a kind of social repentance, a rethinking of a society’s current path. The hope is that this rethinking will cause a different doing. That we will choose to shape society differently. And it’s that different doing that, within the justice tradition of the Hebrew prophets, is envisioned as ultimately bringing social change and liberation, i.e. forgiveness of social sins and different path set for the future.

This is a story that is meant to give us pause. It’s a story that is meant to create in us a reassessment of the kind of society we find ourselves surviving in. And it’s a story that is intended to awaken in us the choice to shape a different kind of society, where those presently marginalized are centered, where surviving is replaced with thriving, a society that is a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone.

It may take a more political lens of interpreting the Jesus story for us to arrive at this conclusion and vision of our present society as well as our work toward something better. But it’s a choice that I believe in the end will be worth it.

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us.

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. How does focussing through the lens of the Jesus story on public, political, systemic sins of our larger society, rather than only our personal, private, individual sins impact your own Jesus following and your engagement with public social injustice? Discuss with your group.

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week


Being Sent for the Work of Justice


logo

Renewed Heart Ministries is a nonprofit organization working for a world of love and justice.

We need your support to offer the kind of resources RHM provides.

Helping people find the intersection between their faith, compassion, and justice is work that continues to prove deeply needed.

Please consider making a donation to support Renewed Heart Ministries’ work, today.

You can donate online by clicking here.

Or you can make a donation by mail at:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

And to those of you out there who already are supporting this ministry, we want to say thank you.  We could not continue being a voice for change without you.


city land scape

Herb Montgomery | April 9, 2021


“We must be careful not to spiritualize these elements. Is the good news we cherish also good news to the poor? Is the good news we cherish also good news to the incarcerated? Is the good news we cherish also good news to oppressed and marginalized people? Is the ‘Lord’s favor’ we cherish also good news to those longing for their debt to be cancelled? What does concrete good news look like in our social context today?”


This week’s reading is from John’s version of the Jesus story:

“On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. Again Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.’ Now Thomas (also known as Didymus ), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord!’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.’ A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.’ Thomas said to him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Then Jesus told him, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’ Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:19-31)

There is a lot in this passage that would be tempting to focus on this week. Thomas’ doubt. Jesus having a physical body that can be touched and that feels hunger, post-Easter, despite John’s gospel being associated with early gnosticism (see Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.11.1).

But what jumps out at me most this year is this phrase:

“‘As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’”

This theme of following Jesus’ example repeats with the Johannine community:

“Whoever says, ‘I abide in him,’ ought to walk just as he walked.” (1 John 2:6)

The Jesus of John’s story doesn’t do things instead of us, as our substitute so we don’t have to do them. This Jesus calls his followers to participate in his actions alongside him.

This idea isn’t only in John’s gospel. Consider this passage from Mark:

“But Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’ They replied, ‘We are able.’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.’” (Mark 10:38)

As Marcus Borg and John Crossan write in their book The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem:

“For Mark, it [the story] is about participation with Jesus and not substitution by Jesus. Mark has those followers recognize enough of that challenge that they change the subject and avoid the issue every time.” (Kindle location 1592)

Over the last few weeks, we have discussed the harmful teaching that suffering is redemptive. I don’t believe that Jesus invites us into his death but does invite us into following the example of his life, even if unjust oppressive systems threaten us with death for doing so. I understand this is a subtle difference in interpretation but it creates a huge difference in how we response to injustice. Suffering some type of pushback for speaking out against injustice may be part of our story, but not because it is intrinsic to following Jesus. I don’t believe we have to die to reach Jesus’ vision for human society. He showed us a path toward distributively just living, and death only enters the picture when those threatened by a distributively just world choose to threaten death or some other penalty if we keep stirring up trouble and disturbing the unjust status quo.

I believe this is a much healthier alternate interpretation to being willing to take up Jesus’ cross and following him. Rather than calling us to be passive in the face of injustice, Jesus calls us to action, even if that action should end up with us being put on a cross. It’s not about choosing to die, but about choosing life, even in the face of death. Jesus didn’t choose the cross. His social opponents choose to answer him with a cross. Jesus chose a life of calling his society to justice, like the Hebrew prophets within his own Jewish tradition, even if they threatened to kill him.

So what does it mean to follow Jesus’ life and, in the words of our passage this week, to be “sent” as Jesus was “sent”?

I resonate deeply with the characterization we find in Luke’s gospel:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)

So this declaration invites some questions of us:

Is the good news we cherish also good news to the poor?

Is the good news we cherish also good news to the incarcerated?

Is the good news we cherish also good news to oppressed and marginalized people?

Is the Lord’s favor we cherish also good news to those longing for their debt to be cancelled?

We must be careful not to spiritualize these elements. People didn’t get put on Roman crosses for talking about spiritual transformation. Romans killed people who made claims about concrete changes to the status quo, a status quo that benefitted some in society at the expense of the many.

What is does concrete good news look like in our social context today, for those who are materially poor, physically incarcerated, socially and economically oppressed, exploited and marginalized, or so deeply indebted that they feel they will never be free?

Firstly, I think of our current criminal justice system and those in various areas of the U.S. having their charges expunged due to the legalization of cannabis. I think of the calls for universal health care, and how so many families have to file for bankruptcy when they become sick, even if they do have health insurance. I think of the calls to forgive student loans that are so inescapable that they even impact seniors in retirement. Our trans and non-binary siblings also come to mind, especially with Thursday, April 1, being International Transgender Visibility Day. I wonder how good news from Christians to this oppressed and marginalized community could be so very different if we would stop to listen to and believe their experiences including harmful experiences from our hands.

Secondly, there’s a phrase in this week’s passage that is deeply harmful to our Jewish siblings. In one translation, the passage states, “On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews…” I’m thankful that the translators of the NIV altered their translation to say “Jewish leaders,” a change that lends room for distinguishing between classes in the society where this story took place. The gospel writers are clear that Jewish common people loved Jesus (Mark 14:2). But with each successive version of the Jesus story told—first Mark, then Matthew and Luke, and finally John—antisemitic hatred or fear of the Jewish people grows more and more. It’s barely present in Mark, but by the time we get to John, as in our passage this week, it is full-blown.

We can do better today. “Fear of the Jews” has a long and violent history in the Christian tradition. We can choose to tell the Jesus story in better, more life-giving, different ways, today.

And lastly, I want to draw attention in this passage to the scars of injustice remaining on Jesus’ body. This is not a story that promises all the scars of past injustice will one day disappear. They may not. This story points the way for people to make reparations for past mistakes and make better choices today that move us closer to a more distributively just future, God’s just future.

It’s to the work of creating that just future in our present world that we are sent today.

As he was sent back then, so are we now.

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us.

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. What are some parallels you notice in Luke 4:18-19 with much needed justice work in our society today? Discuss with your group.

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

The Good News of Forceful Nonviolent Resurrection

Herb Montgomery | April 2, 2021


“The good news was not that Jesus died, or even that he died for you. The good news rather was that this Jesus whom they killed, God has brought back to life! . . . These passages are not without their problems. Yet what is unmistakable in each of them is their emphasis, not on salvific purpose in Jesus’ death, but in how God overcame the injustice of his murder through a life-giving, death-conquering, death-reversing, injustice -overturning resurrection.”


Our reading this week if from Mark’s version of the Jesus story,

“When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, ‘Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?’

“But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. ‘Don’t be alarmed,’ he said. ‘You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, “He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’ Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” (Mark 16:1-8)

Much of Western Christianity is commemorating Holy Week this week, this coming Sunday being Easter Sunday. (Our Eastern Orthodox siblings will be celebrating Easter on May 2.) Christians spend a lot of energy this time each year reflecting on the closing scenes of the Jesus story: Jesus’ last week, his death, burial, and resurrection. Leaders in many communities will interpret these events this weekend.

The early followers of Jesus varied widely in how they interpreted the closing scenes of Jesus’ life. Some viewed his murder as somehow salvific on a cosmic level, while others focused their attention on how his resurrection overcame, reversed, and undid the interruption Jesus’ death posed to his life-giving ministry and caused that life to live on.

These varied voices and explanations are in our sacred scriptures as well. The canon made room for all of them.

The voices that speak most deeply to me are the voices that emphasize God’s overcoming of the unjust death of Jesus through bringing Jesus back to life rather than those that reframe such an unjust act as having a secret Divine purpose.

The book of Acts offers just one biblical example of this focus and emphasis. In Acts, the good news is not that Jesus died, or even that he died for you. The good news rather is that this Jesus whom they killed, God has brought back to life!

Consider the “good news” identified in each of the following passages:

“With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all.” (Acts 4:33, emphasis added)

“Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.” (Acts 2:22-24, emphasis added)

God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.” (Acts 2:32-33, emphasis added)

“When Peter saw this, he said to them: ‘Fellow Israelites, why does this surprise you? Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk? The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus. You handed him over to be killed, and you disowned him before Pilate, though he had decided to let him go. You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you. You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this. By faith in the name of Jesus, this man whom you see and know was made strong. It is Jesus’ name and the faith that comes through him that has completely healed him, as you can all see.’” (Acts 3:12-16, emphasis added)

“Then know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed. Jesus is ‘the stone you builders rejected, which has become the cornerstone.’” (Acts 4:10-11, emphasis added)

The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead—whom you killed by hanging him on a cross. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might bring Israel to repentance and forgive their sins. We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” (Acts 5:30-32, emphasis added)

“You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached—how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him. We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (Acts 10:36-43, emphasis added)

“We tell you the good news: What God promised our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus.” (Acts 13.32-33, emphasis added)

These passages are not without their problems. Yet what is unmistakable in each of them is their emphasis, not on salvific purpose in Jesus’ death, but in how God overcame the injustice of his murder through a life-giving, death-conquering, death-reversing, injustice-overturning resurrection.

Womanist theologians have shaped my thinking and faith journey. I owe them so much.

During the Easter season, for instance, I’m often reminded of statements like this one from Delores Williams in her classic work, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk:

“Matthew, Mark and Luke suggest that Jesus did not come to redeem humans by showing them God’s ‘love’ manifested in the death of God’s innocent child on a cross erected by cruel, imperialistic, patriarchal power. Rather, the texts suggest that the spirit of God in Jesus came to show humans life— to show redemption through a perfect ministerial vision of righting relations between body (individual and community), mind (of humans and of tradition) and spirit. A female-male inclusive vision, Jesus’ ministry of righting relationships involved raising the dead (those separated from life and community), casting out demons (for example, ridding the mind of destructive forces prohibiting the flourishing of positive, peaceful life) and proclaiming the word of life that demanded the transformation of tradition so that life could be lived more abundantly . . . God’s gift to humans, through Jesus, was to invite them to participate in this ministerial vision (“whosoever will, let them come”) of righting relations. The response to this invitation by human principalities and powers was the horrible deed the cross represents—the evil of humankind trying to kill the ministerial vision of life in relation that Jesus brought to humanity. The resurrection does not depend upon the cross for life, for the cross only represents historical evil trying to defeat good. The resurrection of Jesus and the flourishing of God’s spirit in the world as the result of resurrection represent the life of the ministerial vision gaining victory over the evil attempt to kill it. Thus, to respond meaningfully to black women’s historic experience of surrogacy oppression, the womanist theologian must show that redemption of humans can have nothing to do with any kind of surrogate or substitute role Jesus was reputed to have played in a bloody act that supposedly gained victory over sin and/ or evil.” (Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, p. 130)

For Williams, it is the resurrection and the kingdom of God theme in the Jesus story that is life-giving. Not Jesus’ death. Jesus came, not to die, but to show us how to live. “The kingdom of God theme in the ministerial vision of Jesus does not point to death; it is not something one has to die to reach. Rather, the kingdom of God is a metaphor of hope God gives those attempting to right the relations between self and self, between self and others, between self and God as prescribed in the sermon on the mount, in the golden rule and in the commandment to show love above all else.” (Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, pp. 130-131)

I also want to lift up the voice of Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, who weaves even nonviolence into the meaning of the resurrection story event. She writes:

“The resurrection is God’s definitive victory over crucifying powers of evil. Ironically, the power that attempts to destroy Jesus on the cross is actually itself destroyed by the cross. The cross represents the power that denigrates human bodies, destroys life, and preys on the most vulnerable in society. As the cross is defeated, so too is that power. The impressive factor is how it is defeated. It is defeated by a life-giving rather than a life-negating force. God’s power, unlike human power, is not a ‘master race’ kind of power. That is, it is not a power that diminishes the life of another so that others might live. God’s power respects the integrity of all human bodies and the sanctity of all life. This is resurrecting power. Therefore, God’s power never expresses itself through the humiliation or denigration of another. It does not triumph over life. It conquers death by resurrecting life. The force of God is a death-negating, life-affirming force . . . God does not fight death with death. God does not utilize the violence exhibited in the cross to defeat deadly violence itself . . . through the resurrection, God responds to the violence of the cross–the violence of the world—in a nonviolent forceful manner. It is important to understand that nonviolence is not the same as passivity or accommodation to violence. Rather it is the forceful response the protects the integrity of life. Violence seeks to do another harm, while nonviolence seeks to rescue others from harm. It seeks to break the very cycle of violence itself. The forces of nonviolence actually reveal the impotence of violent force. That God could defeat the unmitigated violence of the cross reveals the consummate power of the nonviolent, life-giving force that is God.” (Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, p. 178-180)

This weekend, for those of us who choose to commemorate the resurrection event in the Jesus story and all the meaning that story event symbolizes, I hope that our easter rituals will further shape us into death-negating, life-giving people. That we will commit more deeply to life-affirming work in our world. That together we will continue to work toward a world that is a safe, compassionate, and distributively just home for everyone.

Happy upcoming Easter to each of you.

Love can conquer hate.

Equity can conquer fear and greed.

Inclusion can conquer exclusion and marginalization.

Life-affirmation can conquer death-dealing.

Forceful nonviolence can conquer life-negating violence.

The golden rule is this way of life.

Jesus is risen.

He is risen indeed.

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us.

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. How does focussing on injustice-overturning resurrection in the Jesus story inform, inspire, and empower you in your own participation in justice work today? Share with your group.

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

Reinterpreting the Easter Story

spring sunrise

Herb Montgomery | March 19, 2021


“The central image of Christ on the cross as the savior of the world communicates the harmful message that suffering is redemptive. So what do we do with the passage from John’s gospel?”


This week’s reading is from John’s gospel:

“Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the festival. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. “Sir,” they said, “we would like to see Jesus.” Philip went to tell Andrew; Andrew and Philip in turn told Jesus. Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me. Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.” The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him. Jesus said, “This voice was for your benefit, not mine. Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.” (John 12.20-33)

The statement that jumps out at me each time I read this passage are these words from Jesus: “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

Statements like these seem to be more prevalent in John’s version of the Jesus story, and they trouble me. They bring to mind the writings and critiques of both womanist and feminist Christians who recount these passages’ destructive and even death-dealing fruit in their communities.

For example, womanist scholar Delores Williams, writing of how destructive holding up Jesus’ death as an example for Black women has been, states, “African-American Christian women can, through their religion and its leaders, be led passively to accept their own oppression and suffering— if the women are taught that suffering is redemptive” (Sisters in the Wilderness, p. 161).

She also writes, “As Christians, black women cannot forget the cross, but neither can they glorify it. To do so is to glorify suffering and to render their exploitation sacred” (p. 132).

Two pages earlier, Williams explains, “The resurrection does not depend upon the cross for life, for the cross only represents historical evil trying to defeat good. The resurrection of Jesus and the flourishing of God’s spirit in the world as the result of resurrection represent the life of the ministerial vision gaining victory over the evil attempt to kill it. Thus, to respond meaningfully to black women’s historic experience of surrogacy oppression, the womanist theologian must show that redemption of humans can have nothing to do with any kind of surrogate or substitute role Jesus was reputed to have played in a bloody act that supposedly gained victory over sin and/or evil.”

Similar reflections come from Christian feminist scholars like Elizabeth Bettenhausen, who writes, “Christian theology has long imposed upon women a norm of imitative self-sacrifice base on the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. Powerlessness is equated with faithfulness. When the cross is also interpreted as the salvific work of an all- powerful paternal deity, women’s well being is as secure as that of a child cowering before an abusive father.” (Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse, p. xii)

In the same book, Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker wirte in their ground breaking essay For God So Loved the World?—“Women are acculturated to accept abuse. We come to believe that it is our place to suffer . . . Christianity has been a primary—in many women’s lives the primary—force in shaping our acceptance of abuse. The central image of Christ on the cross as the savior of the world communicates the message that suffering is redemptive.” (For God So Loved the World?, p. 1)

And in the book Beyond God the Father, Mary Daly writes, “The qualities that Christianity idealizes, especially for women, are also those of a victim: sacrificial love, passive acceptance of suffering, humility, meekness, etc. Since these are the qualities idealized in Jesus ‘who died for our sins,’ his functioning as a model reinforces the scapegoat syndrome for women” (p. 77).

So what do we do with the passage from John’s gospel? First, I understand how desperately some people in the early Jesus community needed to make sense of Jesus’ unjust execution. So many had placed their hopes for change and liberation in his teachings, and he had been executed by the very status quo he had spoken out against. I can imagine early followers grappling with what this all meant for them and their decision to follow Jesus. I understand why, especially with Paul’s popularity among Gentile Christians, so many would come to see Jesus’ death as salvific and redemptive.

Today, I find much more positive fruit in life-affirming interpretations of the Jesus narrative, like those from womanist theologian, Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, who in Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, writes, “God’s power . . . is not a power that diminishes the life of another so that others might live. God’s power respects the integrity of all human bodies and the sanctity of life. This is resurrecting power” (p.178). In other words, God doesn’t overcome death and death-dealing through more death, but by giving life, resurrecting life—life that overcomes, reverses, and undoes everything accomplished in the killing of Jesus.

Also, science has something to teach us about this passage. Seeds that germinate haven’t died! Germination is not death, but transformation. When seeds die, they don’t germinate. They actually “abide alone” when they die. But if they germinate rather than die, they transform or “sprout” into a new form: a beautiful plant with the potential to propagate and create more potentially germinating seeds that continue to give life. Life on top of life on top of life on top of life.

As we shared a couple of weeks ago, in other versions of the Jesus story, Jesus died because he refused to keep silent in the face of injustice. The cross was not his silent bearing of injustice, but an unjust penalty imposed on him by unjust people in power who felt threatened by him and his public critique of their unjust system. In other words, Jesus doesn’t model the passive bearing of wrong. He models how to speak out against injustice even if you’re threatened with a cross for doing so.

I didn’t always teach this and I’m thankful for womanist and feminist scholars like those mentioned above who have brought these ideas to our attention. The way I used to interpret and teach the story of Jesus death’ has had devastating effects on the lives of abuse survivors and victims. Suffering is never redemptive. Standing up, speaking out, and saying “no” is redemptive, and glorifying people’s victimization can extend their bodily, emotional, and psychological pain. Victimization destroys a person’s self-worth, self-image, and dignity, robbing them of their sense of self-determining power, and theology that glorifies victimization rather than condemning or resisting it can also lead to death.

Life-giving interpretations of the Jesus story tell of a Jesus who doesn’t ask us if we are willing to suffer, but asks if we desire to fully live, to not let go of life, to not lay down, to not be passively silent when threatened for speaking out. Jesus did not come to die, nor did he choose the cross. He rather chose to live a life opposing unjust, oppressive and exploitative ways of organizing life in this world. Jesus chose not to remain silent; he chose to stand up in faithfulness to his life-giving God, and he refused to change course because of threat.

Jesus knew where his speaking out would lead. He knew what his solidarity with the excluded and exploited would cost him. And he chose to do it nonetheless. He refused to let go of life. He rejected the way of death, even while being threatened with death himself. In the words of Brown and Parker, choosing this interpretation, “is subtle and, to some, specious, but in the end it makes a great difference in how people interpret and respond to suffering.” (Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p. 18)

Indeed, it makes all the difference in the world.

This week, let’s not ask ourselves how we can die. Jesus doesn’t call a person do die, but to live.

So what is it going to take for us to germinate?

HeartGroup Application

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. Share with your group examples of how you have witnessed the message of redemptive suffering bearing harmful fruit. How do you interpret the story of Jesus death and resurrection in life-giving, life-affirming ways?

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

Desecrating Sacred Spaces

Herb Montgomery | January 15, 2021

Washington D.C. U.S. Capitol Building


“As a White Jesus follower, all of these things weigh on me. The red-flag-warning parallels between our own story and the warning Jesus gave; the values acted on in last week’s events; the disparity between how law enforcement responded to the mob and how they respond to Black people; and lastly the disparities in our ability to analyze the actions of those at the U.S. the Capitol building on January 6, all deeply concern me and are a call, as in the above passage, to reflect, and again take life-giving, life-saving action. I pray it gives you cause to reflect and act too.”


In Mark’s gospel we read:

“When you see ‘the abomination that causes desolation’ standing where it does not belong—let the reader understand—then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.” (Mark 13:14, emphasis added.)

Jesus here is describing the desecration of sacred space as a red-alert warning to his followers. And before we write this passage off stating that the temple of which the passage is referring was religious “sacred” space, remember there was no separation of church and state in Jesus’ culture as we know that separation today. The temple was both religious and civic sacred space, the capitol of the Temple state that governed Jesus’ society as well. This speaks volumes to me in the wake of what we recently witnessed at the U.S. Capitol and at state capitols across this country. Within U.S. civic religion, many today consider the U.S. Capitol to be civic “sacred” space. I think of my Christian siblings who have so vocally supported President Trump over the last four years. And I question whether they will succeed or fail to see the events last week as yet another of the long list of red-flag-warnings within our context today. Let’s unpack this a bit.

The passage above is drawing the phrase “abomination that causes desolation” from Daniel and 1 Maccabees. This phrase originally referred to events that took place in the early 2nd Century B.C.E. The historical desecration this language originally referred to was Antiochus IV Epiphanes violating the Temple’s altar of burnt offering with an image of Zeus fashioned in Antiochus’ likeness.

Mark picks up this language to describe the events that led to the desecration and destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 C.E. The language is apocalyptic and would have been familiar to Mark’s intended Jewish and Christian audience.

Disparity of Values

In this section of Mark’s gospel, Jesus is warning of false Messiahs and their deception of the people:

“At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it. For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect.” (Mark 12:21-23)

Here in the U.S., poor White people have a long history of being duped by false messianic political figures who stoke their worst fears, play to their own bigotry, and appeal to a base set of desires that ultimately prove to be death-dealing for them and often society at large.

This history goes all the way back to Bacon’s rebellion in 1675, when the elite hoped to protect their superior status and economic position by driving a wedge between Black enslaved people and poor whites. Having prevented these groups from forming an alliance, the elites then offered poor whites a “racial bribe:” special privileges that Black people would never receive.

In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander writes, “White settlers were allowed greater access to Native American lands, white servants were allowed to police slaves through slave patrols and militias, and barriers were created so that free labor would not be placed in competition with slave labor. These measures effectively eliminated the risk of future alliances between black slaves and poor whites.” (p. 24) Poor whites now had a personal stake in a racialized system of injustice. Their plight did not improve much, but at least they were higher up than the Black slaves. Alexander adds: “Once the elite split the labor force, poor whites responded to the logic of their situation and sought ways to expand their racially privileged position” (pp. 24-25).

Today, elites in the U.S. are still driving wedges between the poor and working classes, and these wedges are along racist, sexist, homophobic, biphobic, and transphobic lines. James Baldwin wrote in The Fire Next Time, “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.” White Jesus followers today, rich or poor, must reclaim his warning against false messiahs as a call to examine our own pain. It can be for us a spring board to evaluating our own actions, determining whether they are rooted in truth and are holy and life-giving, or are profane and based in deception, bribery, and death-dealing.

What we saw at the Capitol building last week was a matter of people acting out their values. People who had been deceived into thinking they were fighting for “freedom” and against “tyranny” were actually fighting for four more years of bigotry, lies, autocracy, and a downward spiral into a cult of personality. Too few of us have developed the ability to think critically about what others tell us, and the people at the Capitol have been manipulated by political powers, wealthy elites, powerful corporations, and a president who doesn’t know how to emotionally deal with losing. These were not protestors calling for justice. They were an out-of-control mob deceived about the character of their actions, and deceived about the character of the man they choose to follow. If you trust and follow people who lie, cheat, show themselves to be bragging bullies, your end will be harm to yourself and others.

Disparity of Treatment

I watched the news the day after the mob stormed the Capitol and wondered why greater precautions weren’t taken. The crowd’s intentions were well known in advance. If Black Lives Matters groups had planned a protest at the Capitol building (as they have in the past) the National Guard would have been lining the steps of the Capitol building. Yet this White crowd of thousands of followers of the President overran the complex. Those who don’t believe White privilege exists in the U.S. need to take a step back and consider the stark disparity between security preparations in D.C. on January 6 and policing at any justice rally or protest.

I remember peacefully protesting with my 8th grade daughter in Baltimore in response to the murder of Freddie Gray years ago. Military sniper riffles were pointed at the crowd my daughter and I stood in at the rally on the lawn in front of Baltimore’s city hall. But on January 6 , police were pictured removing barriers blocking the mob and they took selfies with those who broke into the Capitol. Black people, people like those I stood with in Baltimore, would have all been shot. Law enforcement officers kill Black people in this country for nothing.

It was painful for me to watch the disparity in responses on January 6. I can’t imagine how painful it was for my non-White friends. It’s not that I want those involved in last week’s mob to meet the same level of lethal force, but that I want those crying out for racial justice to meet with the same level of self-restraint.

Last July, the President of the United States declared that anyone defacing or destroying federal property would be punished to the highest extent of the law. On January 6, that same president told those who desecrated and destroyed federal property that he loved them and they were “very special” people. It was never about protecting property but about the skin-color of those calling for change.

Disparity of Analysis

Lastly, the disparities in analysis by certain news outlets in our country is also heavy on my heart. I have listened to people I know personally referred to as “thugs,” “terrorists,” “rioters,” and “looters” over the past year. But these same news outlets called those involved in last week’s riots “patriots” and “freedom fighters.”

One of those involved was one of West Virginia’s very own: newly elected state official Delegate Derrick Evans (see Newly Elected Del. Derrick Evans Live-Streams Storming Of U.S. Capitol, A Newly Elected West Virginia Delegate Was Part Of The Pro-Trump Mob That Stormed The Capitol, and West Virginia lawmaker among rioters in Capitol). Another state legislator, W.V. State Senator Mike Azinger, a Republican from Wood county was also at the rally on January 6. Senator Azinger has since stated, “It was inspiring to be there and I hope he [Trump] calls us back.” (W.Va. senator who went to D.C. rally that turned into mob scene hopes Trump ‘calls us back’)

Our local state Senator, Sen. Stephan Baldwin (D), pastor of the Ronceverte Presbyterian Church released the following statement on behalf of West Virginia’s Senate Minority Caucus:

“Today, our children must know that this is not how democracy works. Democracy is determined by ballots, not bullets. Democracy rests on the peaceful transfer of power because of free and fair elections. We do not inflict violence on those with whom we disagree. We condemn today’s attack on democracy because this is a nation of laws, order, and decency.

All of those who participated in today’s attack on the capitol, especially those who unlawfully entered the building and perpetrated acts of violence, should be prosecuted fully by the law that undergirds our democracy.

We understand that an incoming delegate, Derrick Evans, videoed himself participating in such acts. There is no place for him in the WV Legislature.

When our state was born, it took tremendous strength to carve West Virginia out of a divided nation. We are divided again today. It will take all our better angels to heal us. We pledge to do our part in the halls of the West Virginia Capitol, and we call on all citizens to do their part. Check on your neighbors, help someone in need, engage with those who are different from you. That is how we will summon the strength needed to right this country again. By loving our neighbors throughout these majestic and grand hills of West Virginia.”

At the time that I write this, we here in WV are still waiting to see how Del. Derrick Evan’s actions will be evaluated and responded to. Some here who so strongly condemned the peaceful racial justice protests of last summer are calling him a hero.

As a White Jesus follower, all of these things weigh on me. The red-flag-warning parallels between our own story and the warning Jesus gave; the values acted on in this week’s events; the disparity between how law enforcement responded to the mob and how they respond to Black people; and lastly the disparities in our ability to analyze the actions of those at the U.S. the Capitol building on January 6, all deeply concern me and are a call, as in the above passage, to reflect, and again take life-giving, life-saving action.

I pray it gives you cause to reflect and act too.

HeartGroup Application

*****

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us.

*****

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. What do the disparities mentioned above speak of to you? Discuss with your HeartGroup.

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

Reimagining Our World in 2021

city scape in black and white

by Herb Montgomery | January 8, 2021

Mark’s stories about Jesus begin:

“Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’” (Mark 1:14–15)

If the scholars have rightly determined when Mark’s gospel was written, it was written at a time when many Jewish followers of Jesus were trying to find purpose after the devastation of Jerusalem, the temple, and the temple-state that functioned from there. Political tensions with Rome had escalated to an uprising, war, and ruin. With Jerusalem devastated, Mark draws our attention away from a Jerusalem-centered movement and to a Galilean-centered movement rooted in the teachings of the itinerant Jesus.

Mark’s gospel also redefines the “kingdom” of the apocalyptic book of Daniel’s “son of man” (see Daniel 7). In Mark’s gospel, Jesus is the “messiah” (Mark 1:1). This label had yet not become Christianized or anti-Semitic and was still associated with many Jewish liberation movements whose anointed ones (“messiahs”) promised liberation from Rome. Rome’s most recent response to these messiahs had razed Jerusalem to the ground.

The Hebrew prophets called for social justice and liberation of the oppressed, and located restoration on earth, with “Jerusalem” being the center to which the entire world would flock. And now Jerusalem is no more.

Now in 2021, in wake of the present Covid-19 pandemic, so many here in the U.S. have experienced losses of unimaginable magnitude. Does Mark’s version of the Jesus story still offer us today any concrete hope and encouragement toward our hopes for a just, safe, compassionate world? How does the gospel of Mark call us to reimagine a just society in 2021? We’ll consider this and more in this short series.

If Mark could offer good news or “gospel” in the midst of such loss for its intended audience, maybe we can find some here, too.

Mark’s Gospel

In this climate, Mark’s gospel reimagines the kingdom of this son of man. Could an end of violence, injustice, and oppression rise out of Galilee rather than Judea? If we compared Judea and Galilee in the first century, we’d find ethnic, geographic, political, economic, cultural, linguistic, and religious differences between them. Matthew and Mark emphasize the Galilean context, while Luke’s gospel and Acts centers their stories of Jesus in Jerusalem and, from there, grows (through Paul) to the rest of the Gentile world.

Mark’s gospel, believed to be the earliest written in our Christian scriptures, uses the Greek term for Good News or “Gospel,” euaggelion. This originally was neither a religious nor a Christian term but was instead a political term that announced a new status quo. Whenever Rome would conquer a territory, it would send out an “evangelist” who would proclaim to the conquered territory the “gospel” or good news that they were now under the rule of the peace of Rome (Pax Romana). The messenger would announce that Caesar was the son of God and Rome was the savior of the world. They would proclaim that Rome’s dominion would give the conquered territory a newfound prosperity and peace (Plutarch, Agesilaus, p. 33; Plutarch Demetrius, p. 17; Plutarch, Moralia [Glory of Athens], p. 347)

The challenge for Mark’s audience would have been that Rome, the supposed savior, and Ceasar, this son of God, had just obliterated Jerusalem and the Jewish temple. The Roman term gospel communicated the arrival of a new social order, but, for the Jewish people Rome’s order had failed in the most harmful way possible.

The Jesus of Mark’s gospel took this term and announced the “Kingdom of God” rather than the kingdom of Rome (Mark 1:15). I prefer Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas’ term “God’s just future” rather than “kingdom,” given the patriarchal and politically problematic nature of kingdoms for us today.

Never once does the Jesus of Mark offer people a way to “get to heaven.” Rather, he travels the Galilean countryside announcing a new social order, here and now, in opposition to Rome’s failed order. The political and economic social order among the elite families of the temple-state of Jerusalem had proven incapable of stemming social unrest and uprising.

Though Jerusalem is no more by the time Mark is written, Jesus teaches in the justice traditions of the Hebrew prophets. Is the just world envisioned by the prophets and Jesus still possible without Jerusalem? Mark’s gospel answers, yes: God’s just future is still possible if we’ll choose it. Old geographical expectations about the new social order would have to change, but Mark could still envision the hope of a just, safe, compassionate world with a place for us all through his Jesus and his teachings.

Today, we must hold on to the hope that a different iteration of our world is possible, too.

Repent and Believe

Mark’s gospel calls its audience to “repent and believe the good news.” It almost sounds tone-deaf in the face of Rome. Yet this language of repentance and belief was not purely religious. For Mark’s audience, the call to “repent and believe” a “gospel” different than Rome’s would have been deeply political.

The Greek word for repent is metanoeo. It means to rethink something, to think differently about things, or to reconsider. Mark’s Jesus proclaims a gospel that invited a radical rethinking of how to order society. Jesus was calling his followers to reassess their values and placing the vulnerable at the center of those values, not just the wealthy and elite. This rethinking applied to both those being oppressed by the current social order and to those oppressing them.

Today, too, we can predict that exploitative systems and economic structures must change or humanity will cease to exist. Mark’s audience had seen exploitation’s destructive end. The ever-burning fire of violence between oppressors and the oppressed had escalated till Jerusalem stood smoldering.

The Greek phrase for “repent and believe” is metanoesein kai pistos. This phrase is used in other contexts than in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Josephus’ autobiography, for example, records an event that took place when he tried to end various Galilean seditions “without bloodshed.” Josephus engaged with the “captain” of the brigands “who were in the confines of Ptolemais” and told him that he would forgive “what he had done already if he would repent of it, and be faithful to me [Josephus] hereafter.” Josephus was requiring this brigand to abandon his violent revolutionary inclinations and trust Josephus for a better way. Josephus uses the same phrase Jesus does: “metanoesein kai pistos emoi (Thackery, The Life of Flavius Josephus, p. 10)

Whereas Josephus blamed brigands and Jewish rebels for the destruction Rome wreaked on Jerusalem, today we’d call that victim-blaming. Rome chose to economically exploit the people in Galilee and Judea through client kings and the temple-state’s high priests. And when the people finally had been bled dry and could not take any more, Rome chose to respond by leveling Jerusalem to the ground.

Mark’s gospel lifts this phrase, metanoesein kai pistos emoi, (repent and believe in what I’m telling you) to call its audience, not to the passive acceptance Josephus offered, but to reimagine what a just world could look like, even in the wake of such devastation and setback.

2020 has been devastating for so many. In 2021, our social orders will still prioritize and privilege some while marginalizing and subjugating others. In our world, White people are privileged over people of color; men are privileged over women; the rich are privileged over the poor; those defined as “straight” and “cis” are privileged over those who identify as LGBTQ, and the formally educated are privileged over those who are equally intelligent but have not had the same opportunities.

What is Mark’s Jesus saying to us today?

A different iteration of our present world is possible even now if we would collectively choose it, and it will take us choosing it together. Mark’s Jesus story subverts present structures and offers a way of imagining our world where people matter over power, privilege, property, and profit. Just as it did for Mark’s original audience, this reimagining of our present world involves a radically new way of thinking about redistributing resources with values of compassion, justice, equity, and concern for the safety, well-being, and thriving of those the present system leaves vulnerable to harm.

This vision is of a world of social structures rooted in love for all. As Dr. Emilie Townes states, and as we at RHM are fond of often quoting, “If we begin with the belief that God loves everyone, justice isn’t very far behind.” In the words of Mark’s gospel, when we start with love, a just future “has come near” (Mark 1:15).

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us.

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. Justice is what love looks like in public. Take a moment to reimagine how you’d like to see our world reshaped this week. Discuss some of your reimagining with your group.

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

The Concrete Liberation Narratives of Advent (Part 3)

Herb Montgomery | December 24, 2020

nativity


“So many are suffering hardship right now in the U.S. These stories of the birth of Jesus aren’t distractions from that suffering. They don’t turn our focus to postmortem bliss or internalized private and personal piety. Instead, they speak to hope and deliverance from the very tangible economic, social, and political realities that people are suffering through today. This is the focus of the Jesus stories. How much more should this be our focus if we claim these stories at the core of our religious tradition? The liberation in these stories applies to what people are going through right now, here, in the present unjust system.”


“This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:12)

This Christmas, many are enduring hardship because the political elite have mishandled the COVID-19 pandemic. The economic recovery some have touted is a “K” shaped recovery: the wealthy have gotten even wealthier whereas both the working class and those who live below the poverty line have seen their lives get worse.

In this context, Mary’s Magnificat in Luke’s birth narratives gives me much to ponder: “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty.”

As we said in part 2, these narratives in Matthew and Luke are not filled with the theme of another world or an afterlife. Instead, they present another iteration of this world. They are concerned with the concrete experience of those being exploited and fighting for their economic survival in this life, here and now. They are not about salvation as individual or spiritual but as concrete liberation from the social, political, and economic realities that seek to crush the people.

Luke’s entire gospel repeatedly contrasts the common people or peasantry with the ruling elite in the society of Luke’s intended audience (cf. Luke 6:20-26; Luke 4:18-19). Our communities today are divided along social, political, and economic lines too. During this pandemic, many of the haves have gained even more while the little bit that those without had, has either been taken away or been barely enough. What do these stories say for our lives, today? Can they still speak to us of another kind of world, possible here and now?

In Matthew, the Magi are key characters. Luke gives us the shepherds (see Luke 2:8). Interpreting these shepherds in Luke’s story, Horsley writes in The Liberation of Christmas: The Infancy Narratives in Social Context: “The shepherds of Luke 2 should not be over-interpreted, whether in the older fashion as symbols of some idyllic pastoral life or in the more recent mode as representatives of the despised and ostracized in Jewish society. Shepherds were simply part of the peasantry in ancient Palestinian society. Peasants, almost by definition, were poor, and dwellers were lowly in status. Shepherds while not despised by the people, were apparently some of the lowliest of the lowly.” (p.106)

Luke’s birth narratives are centered in the social location of the common people rather than that of the elite of the day. Even John the Baptist’s parents are common priests living in Judea and associated with the common people, not high-priests connected to other rulers in Jerusalem. Luke’s birth narrative places Jesus among and in solidarity with the hopes of the common peasantry of that time.

This association of Jesus with the hopes of those scratching and clawing for their survival helps us better understand the focus of three poems included in Luke: The Magnificat (Mary, Luke 1:46-55), the Benedictus (Zechariah, Luke 1:68-79), and the Nunc Dimittis (Simeon, Luke 2:29-32).

Let’s take a very brief look at each.

The Magnificat

And Mary said:

“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.” (Luke 1:46-55)

This is not the pious prayer of a saint, but a revolutionary song of concrete liberation. It stands in the tradition of sociopolitical, Hebrew victory songs. Songs like Mary’s were sung by Miriam (Exodus 15), Deborah (Judges 5), and Judith (Judges 6), and their form is very close to other Jewish hymns from the late-second-Temple era, like the psalms in 1 Maccabees, Judith, 2 Baruch, 4 Ezra, the Psalms of Solomon and the Qumran Hodayoth and War Scroll (The Liberation of Christmas, p. 108).

The themes of Mary’s song are also not solely spiritual: they are deeply and subversively social, economic, and political. The Magnificat is about God’s revolutionary overthrow of the established governing authorities on behalf of the peasantry of Israel.

Consider these examples of concrete, political usage of Mary’s same language:

“The LORD your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves.” (Zephaniah 3:17)

“Your arm is endowed with power; your hand is strong, your right hand exalted.” (Psalm 89:13)

“You crushed Rahab like one of the slain, with your strong arm you scattered your enemies.” (Psalm 89:10)

“He is the one you praise; he is your God, who performed for you those great and awesome wonders you saw with your own eyes.” (Deuteronomy 10:21, cf. Psalm 105)

See also the entire 111th psalm.

Mary’s song evokes the ancient memory of God’s great acts of liberation, the exodus from Egypt, and the Hebrew prophets’ promises of liberation, renewal, and restoration. “The humble state of his servant” does not refer solely to Mary but to the entire community of peasants in Israel. This language is used in Deuteronomy and the Psalms to describe a condition of being dominated, oppressed, and afflicted. It does not refer to an individual’s spiritual humility but to the concrete social, economic, and political conditions of all the people:

“Then we cried out to the LORD, the God of our ancestors, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our misery, toil, and oppression.” (Deuteronomy 26:7)

“He remembered us in our low estate, His love endures forever.” (Psalms 136:23)

The proud, who God scatters, could have referred to the oppressive domestic rulers (Herod/High Priestly class) or to foreign oppressors (Romans). (See Psalm of Solomon 2:1-2, 25, 28-31; 17:8, 15, 26).

This is a song about the political liberation of a people with actual political enemies, just as the same kinds of liberation songs in previous generations referred to bondage in Egypt, rescue from Canaanite kings, and deliverance from the Philistines. The lowly in each instance means those who have suffered exploitation, oppression, and subjugation from the wealthy and powerful ruling groups and the systems of injustice they were responsible for.

Luke’s songs of social, political, and economic deliverance for the poor, marginalized, peasants announce that a new social order of justice and abundance as well as surviving and thriving is possible.

Read through the other two songs used in Luke’s birth narratives. I’ll share references showing examples of how the political language used in Luke had been politically used in other passages of the Hebrew scriptures, as well.

The Benedictus

“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has visited his people and redeemed them.

[See Exodus 4:31; Ruth 1:6; Psalms 80:14; 106:4; 111:5-6,9]

He has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David

[See Psalms 18:2; Ezekiel 29:21; 1 Samuel 2:10; Psalms 132:17; Judges 2:16, 18; 3:9,15]

(as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
salvation from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us—
to show mercy to our ancestors
and to remember his holy covenant,
the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
and to enable us to serve him without fear
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,

[Jeremiah 31:34; 33:8]

because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,

[Isaiah 9:2; Psalms 107:9-10]

to guide our feet into the path of peace.” (Luke 1:68-79)

The Nunc Dimittis

“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,

[Isaiah 52:13-53:12]

and the glory of your people Israel.” (Luke 2:29-32)

Right after this last poem, Simeon blesses Mary and Joseph, saying that their child is for the “falling and rising of many in Israel.” This statement harks back to Mary’s song of some being lifted up and others pulled down, and it looks forward to the economic teachings of Jesus where the poor will be blessed, but the well-fed will go hungry (see Luke 6).

So many are suffering hardship right now in the U.S. These stories of the birth of Jesus aren’t distractions from that suffering. They don’t turn our focus to postmortem bliss or internalized private and personal piety. Instead, they speak to hope and deliverance from the very tangible economic, social, and political realities that people are suffering through today.

This is the focus of the Jesus stories. How much more should this be our focus if we claim these stories at the core of our religious tradition? The liberation in these stories applies to what people are going through right now, here, in the present unjust system. And this pandemic continues to reveal how disproportionately unjust our systems are for so many.

The songs of liberation speak of political, economic, social, and even religious conflict, and of deliverance—God’s just future—breaking into our suffering today. That just future is rooted in the teachings of this “baby” found by shepherds “wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Will we choose it?

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us.

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. Share something from Matthew’s or Luke’s birth narratives that speak to you of concrete liberation, today.

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

The Concrete Liberation Narratives of Advent (Part 2 of 3)

Herb Montgomery | December 18, 2020

wisemen


“Notice that, for their first audiences, the stories of Jesus were not Christian stories about getting to heaven. These were stories deeply rooted in the concrete liberation hopes and realities people were facing . . . These stories are political. They are rooted in the hunger of an oppressed people for social justice. They are about concrete liberation from injustice, both systemic and private, in the here and now, and that is to be our focus as Jesus followers, too.”


Matthew’s version of the Advent narratives begins with this note:

“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem.” (Matthew 2:1)

This month’s recommended reading from Renewed Heart Ministries is The Liberation of Christmas: The Infancy Narratives in Social Context by Richard A. Horsley. Horsley identifies the Magi as the highest-ranking political and religious advisers of the Medean emperor and the Persian imperial court. Their religious role was meant to maintain what was believed to be a divinely given imperial order: even their religious purpose was for political ends. The Magi were priestly assistants to the Great King of the Persian Empire—the King of Kings, who was believed to be the divine ruler on earth. Tertullian tells us that “the East considers the Magi almost as kings” themselves (Against Marcion, 3:13).

One of their royal roles would have been to cultivate knowledge of the cosmos and cosmic events, including observing any unusual occurrences in the heavens, and interpreting the divine will or order of things to the king.

That the Magi are in Matthew’s advent story at all is significant. It’s about much more than the inclusion of Gentiles in salvation, salvation that the child they came to see would bring.

What are the implications including the Magi here?

Persia was Rome’s enemy at this time, and the Magi advised the Eastern kings. The Magi, therefore, represented the East in the East-West conflict between Rome and Persia. The Magi were also present at the birth of the Persian King Cyrus who had liberated the Jewish people in the 6th Century BCE (see Isaiah 45) So Matthew including the Magi in his story about Jesus had both international political and religious implications for Rome.

Remember, one of the purposes of Matthew’s advent narrative was to subvert the Roman imperialism subjugating the Jewish people. His story includes Rome’s international enemies, and they, as they were for Cyrus, are present at this little liberator’s birth. Matthew’s audience would have recognized their presence as a sign that this baby was allied with Rome’s enemies. The baby’s overthrow of Roman oppression would have been good news (gospel) to Rome’s enemies as well. Matthew’s story takes political sides against Rome by including the Magi.

“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’ When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.” (Matthew 2:1-4)

Three elements of this section will help us understand Matthew’s story more clearly.

  1. Herod
  2. The phrase, “King of the Jews”; and
  3. The disturbance of “all Jerusalem”

As we discussed last week, Herod was Rome’s client king for the Jewish people. Herod economically crushed the Jewish common people, piling on to the already oppressive Roman tax burden people faced in his area and threatening violence from a large, heavily armed militia if they resisted. Herod extracted heavy tributes for extensive building projects aimed to pay homage to Caesar. And he was intensely efficient at crushing uprisings and rebellions against his oppressive policies. He slaughtered people extensively, and life under him meant exploitation and tyranny for the Jewish peasantry: Herod economically bled his people and country dry, and the peasantry cried out day and night for relief from helpless and hopeless poverty. For many, Herod was synonymous with Roman oppression.

The phrase King of the Jews, used in reference to Jesus, has had a long and very harmful anti-Semitic history in Christianity, just as the term Messiah has.

Originally, Jewish liberation movements used the phrase “king of the Jews.” Jewish people didn’t then have a standardized or generally held expectation of a “messiah,” as the term is understood by Christians today. Messiah means “the one who is anointed.” Just like David was anointed by Samuel the prophet, “the anointed one” was anointed to become a king. At the time of Matthew’s story, a common hope among the many and varied Jewish liberation movements was that a king, like David of old, would rise up and liberate the Jewish people from their suffering under Rome. It was simply an expression of the broader hope of the people to be liberated from foreign rule.

This is the only context I believe helpful for understanding why the gospels use the phrase “king of the Jews” in reference to Jesus in the gospels. The community of the gospels was yet another oppressed Jewish community hoping for concrete liberation. For the gospels to call Jesus Messiah, king of the Jews, or anointed one is to simply refer to their Jesus as a liberator from oppression just as every other liberation movement of this time had their king, anointed one, or liberator. But we must leave these phrases in their own social context if we are to avoid Christianizing them into the harmful antisemitic beliefs and practices of supersessionism, the belief that the Christian church has replaced Jewish people and Judaism.

Why might “all Jerusalem” have been disturbed by the Magi’s declaration?

Judea was an agrarian society. Agrarian societies could be headed politically and economically by a fortified city where the rulers lived. This kind of agrarian society benefited and privileged the city rulers with a privileged, secure lifestyle with attendants yet at the expense of the peasant farm workers outside the city. The rulers typically owned the farmland outside the city, too.

That was the situation in ancient Judea. Judean society took the form of a Temple-state centered in Jerusalem and headed by a priestly aristocracy and their retainers such as the scribes. To the best of our knowledge today, this priestly aristocracy was comprised of four families who were appointed to their powerful positions by Herod and therefore Rome. The priestly aristocracy was the elite and powerful who were politically tied to Herod’s success.

When Matthew’s narrative says “all Jerusalem” was disturbed, I don’t believe he was saying all the Jewish population of Jerusalem. That interpretation blames Jews for Jesus’ later execution. No. “All Jerusalem” is more similar to what we here in the U.S. might say: that all D.C. was disturbed. We wouldn’t be talking about the taxi drivers but we’d be talking about those in political positions of power and privilege and their attendants who would have much to lose from a change in the status quo. Horsely again states, “‘All Jerusalem’ would have been the ruling city that politically dominated and economically exploited the rest of the people” (Ibid. p. 50). The elite in power because of Herod’s position would have been deeply disturbed by any threat of change to Herod’s situation and thus their own.

What does this have to do with us today?

Notice that, for their first audiences, the stories of Jesus were not Christian stories about getting to heaven. These were stories deeply rooted in the concrete liberation hopes and realities people were facing. Matthew borrows from the original Exodus narratives at certain places in his advent story because, just like the Exodus story, Matthew’s story is about our concrete real world, oppression in this life, here and now, and tangible hopes of liberation.

How do the ethics, values, and teachings that we find in the Jesus stories guide us to impact our real world in concrete ways as agents of action? How do they inspire us to shape our world into a safer, just, compassionate home for everyone? Are we, unlike these advent stories, just focused on an afterlife, post-mortem heaven, or escaping to bliss beyond? Or are we, like these stories, engaging the real harm being committed against vulnerable populations and communities in our society today? How much does our following Jesus align with these stories? How aligned is our Christianity with the this-life focus and liberation of Jesus?

These stories are political. They are rooted in the hunger of an oppressed people for social justice. They are about concrete liberation from injustice, both systemic and private, in the here and now, and that is to be our focus as Jesus followers, too.

This focus becomes even more pointed when we get to Luke’s advent narratives.

We’ll take a look at those next week.

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us.

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. This year’s Christmas holiday is filled with harsh realities for many in the U.S.  Discuss with your HeartGroup what you can do, together, to mitigate some portion of that harm for someone this holiday season. Pick something from the discussion for your group to do together in this final week leading up to Christmas.

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week


The Concrete Liberation Narratives of Advent (Part 1 of 3)

Herb Montgomery | December 11, 2020

nativity carving


“This Christmas story, far from being about how Jesus would make a way to the afterlife and leave the oppressive systems and structures of this world passively untouched, speaks to its audience of liberation from soul-crushing realities affecting its listeners in the here and now . . . This year, as many of us are facing our own harsh realities, there may have never been a more appropriate time to consider the concrete liberation in the birth narratives of the Advent season: they were written for people who were facing harsh realities.”


“This is how the birth of Jesus the anointed came about.” (Matthew 1.18)

Advent season has begun!

Over the next few weeks, we’ll look at the birth narratives of Jesus from 1st Century perspectives. In their cultural context, both Matthew’s and Luke’s birth narratives are about concrete liberation for oppressed Jewish people in the here and now. Matthew and Luke differ greatly on the details of the birth of Jesus but both speak of concrete liberation. We will read each story in the religious and political contexts they were written in. They intensely subvert the political theologies of their day.

Today, we have access to information that helps us rediscover the stories’ meaning to the first-century followers of Jesus and also to us today as well.

A Preliminary Word about Both Narratives

Something to note before we begin: these narratives are primarily concerned with this world, not with heaven. They are focused on liberation in this life, much like the Exodus liberation narratives of the Torah are. Too often, the birth narratives of Jesus are read through the lens of salvation defined as an entrance into post-mortem heaven. But that is not how the original Jewish Jesus community would have heard these stories.

That community was concerned with the whole of life, not merely with an afterlife. A spiritual, afterlife application of these narratives became the dominant interpretation through the cultural influence of the Christianizing and expanding Roman Empire. Reading the gospel narratives with an otherworldly focus has born an intensely destructive fruit ever since then. Before imperial Christianity, people understood these narratives to be about the liberation and transformation of our communities and this world. They were not solely religious stories; they were also political, economic, and social, with distributively just imaginings of an end of violence, injustice, and oppression.

The Importance of Context

If we are going to wrest these two narratives from centuries of purely religious and otherworldly interpretations, we must discover their historical context. Once we see that context, we cannot unsee it. Once we know it, we cannot unknow it. Learning this context for myself has forever changed how I read the birth narratives of Jesus, so I want to share that journey with you.

This week, we’ll begin with Matthew’s narrative. We will consider why Herod is the focus and why the Magi are included. Next time, we will explore Luke’s birth narrative. My hope is the information in this series will enable you to read the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke anew. And I hope that these narratives, seen in their own contexts, will renew your heart and hope, and inspire you as a Jesus follower to more deeply embody their focus on transforming this world.

Though the early Jesus birth narratives were originally intended for 1st Century listeners, I believe they’re also significant for us today. In our era, these narratives are being eclipsed for Christians by consumerism that uses the gift of Jesus to affirm our holiday economic machine.

Richard Horsley describes this in the introduction to The Liberation of Christmas: The Infancy Narratives in Social Context. He writes:

“Indirectly at least, the giving, hence the buying, of gifts is rooted in the paradigms of God’s gift of the Christ-child and the costly gifts of the Magi. The Christmas story has clearly come to have a material significance: it helps to legitimate the festival of retailing and consumption of goods. The Christmas story has thus also become subservient to the contemporary economic ends as well as subjected to modern cultural presuppositions.” (p. ix)

Today the subversive political and economic themes of the Christmas story are lost even to Christians who are most familiar with them. Systemic racism continues to thrive, xenophobia toward immigrants and Muslim Americans flourishes, LGBTQ exclusion is still practiced by a large number of Christian congregations, and, much like the Rome of these birth narratives, the U.S. still seeks, to achieve peace through military violence—all while we adorn our American lawns with nativities of the babe from Bethlehem.

If we are to rediscover the original subversive power of the birth narratives of Jesus and rightly apply those stories to our lives today, we must read them in the context of the lives and hopes of people in 1st Century Galilee and Judea who daily faced dehumanizing and economically crushing oppression.

Matthew’s ‘King of the Jews’ uses a title reserved for Herod the Great. And Luke’s “Son of God”, Savior of the world, the One who brings peace on earth also uses titles and accomplishments normally applied to Caesar alone. We’ll explore what difference the reassigning of these titles to Jesus made for the oppressed communities of early Jesus followers throughout this series.

For now, the Gospel of Rome promised peace through terror and violence. The Gospels envisioned peace on the other hand through an establishment of distributive justice for all.

The historian Josephus wrote about the ceremonial celebration at which the Roman Senate made Herod the client king of the Jewish region. He said:

“The meeting was dissolved and Antony and Caesar (Augustus) left the senate-house with Herod between them, preceded by the consuls and the other officials, as they went to offer sacrifice and to lay up the decree in the Capitol. On this, the first day of his reign, Herod was given a banquet by Antony.” (War 1.285)

Herod would later economically crush the Jewish common people, piling on the already oppressive Roman tax burden of the inhabitants of the area under his control and threatening violent redress by a large and heavily armed militia. Not only was the Jerusalem Temple-state responsible for collecting the temple tax and the tribute due to Rome, but Herod would also extract heavy tributes for an extensive building project aimed at paying homage to Caesar and thus securing his position within the Roman empire. Herod was intensely efficient at crushing uprisings and rebellions against his oppressive policies, and his slaughter of the people in villages and towns was extensive at certain times. This was a time when life in this region under Herod looked most hopeless. It was a time characterized by exploitation and tyranny for the Jewish peasantry: Herod was economically bleeding his people and country dry.

Josephus again writes that, at one point, Herod’s economic tributes became so heavy that, Herod had to remit “to the people of his kingdom a third part of their taxes, under the pretext of letting them recover from a period of lack crops” (Antiquities 15.365). Because Herod himself was involved in projects whose expenses were greater than his means, “he was compelled to be harsh toward his subjects, for the great number of things on which he spent money as gifts to some, caused him to be the source of harm to those from whom he took his revenues.” (Antiquities 16.154)

The situation for many under Herod’s reign that the peasantry cried out day and night for relief from Herod’s tyranny. Herod had reduced the entire people to helpless and hopeless poverty. Herod had become a conduit for the transfer of the economic lifeblood of Jewish people to other peoples and thus deeply harmed the towns in his own realm as people, once of means, daily passed into poverty.

This is the concrete political, economic, and real-life situation Matthew’s birth narrative centers as it tells the story of a threat to Herod’s reign. This Christmas story, far from being about how Jesus would make a way to the afterlife and leave the oppressive systems and structures of this world passively untouched, speaks to its audience of liberation from soul-crushing realities affecting its listeners in the here and now.

We’ll take a deeper look at Matthew’s version of the story of the birth of Jesus next time.

What economically life-crushing realities are impacting you this week?

How has the COVID pandemic impacted your life? How has the government downplaying it, some leaders’ apparent choice to choose the do-nothing, mass-murder-policy of natural herd immunity, the U.S. Senate’s choice to recess early before the Thanksgiving holiday instead of passing on much-needed relief—how have these and more failed approaches to the pandemic impacted you?

This year, as many of us are facing our own harsh realities, there may have never been a more appropriate time to consider the concrete liberation in the birth narratives of the Advent season: they were written for people who were facing harsh and crushing realities themselves and found hope in the person and teachings of Jesus.

Advent has now begun.

What do its stories have to share with us today?

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us.

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. In what ways do you see the Advent narratives being much more concerned with our concrete lives, here and now, rather than being otherworld or afterlife focused?

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week